It's a word that gets thrown around a lot, and for good reason: it lurks like a buzzard just out of reach, coaxing us out of our comfort zone, inspiring one more click, one more watch, one more buy. We want to be the first to know what’s being innovated. We want to be innovators. We want to be around innovators. But it’s never quite in our grasp. We’re always a second too late. The pinnacle slipped out the back door moments before we arrived.
It’s comforting to posit that most innovators feel behind the eight-ball themselves. (An inside source at a large Silicon valley micro-chip engineering company recently confirmed that, in order to drive production of the hardware inside iPhones 8, 9 and 10, the CEO regularly communicates on his Razr flip phone.) In fact, innovation is constantly happening all over the world in unexpected environments, and much of it has simply been recycled and renamed.
An example of this is the Mersey Model of Harm Reduction, developed in 1980’s Liverpool as a public health strategy to affect more change by reducing harm to drug users (and the local economy) rather than the previous model of forcing them to choose between abstinence or punishment. Programs like needle-exchanges, wet shelters, and DanceSafe were created to work in tandem with other approaches to reduce sexually transmitted diseases, violence, property damage, and emergency room visits.
I’m out on a limb here guessing that when you think of innovation, you don’t think of a wet shelter.
At the time harm reduction was introduced, it was a bleeding edge idea that fueled much resistance from the old model of drug and alcohol treatment. In fact, even decades later, this doctor (Dr Deluca) was fired for supporting harm reduction in Manhattan, NY, a traditionally liberal locale.
30 years post-Mersey Model, we see harm-reductionist philosophies applied to many systemic challenges, and not just in the area of public health (though that particular debate is far from over).
One of these areas is environmentalism.
If you ever shop at a grocery store or a farmer’s market — okay, let’s be honest, if you ever buy food from someone else — you’re probably aware of the organic movement. Word has finally spread to small- and large-scale farmers, and to consumers, so now most people agree that pesticides are bad. Unfortunately, “organic” is not synonymous with innovative or environmental, as organic practices can still be applied to monoculture and feedlots.
The organic movement is the latest iteration of harm reduction, and it is no longer innovative enough for the problems and the scale we are facing today. It’s a 1980’s approach to a twenty-teen problem and it needs to be revised with a quickness. We no longer have the luxury of reducing harm to the environment. We need to actively improve it.
And frankly, the organic conversation is boring me.
Remember when web 1.0 (static information) moved to web 2.0 (real-time information) moved to web 3.0 (push notifications), and stagnant web pages became totally yawn-inducing? Well, we need to move from environmentalism 2.0 (reducing harm) — environmentalism 1.0 being acknowledging the problem — to environmentalism 3.0 (active benefit).
Natura is a two-billion-dollar Brazilian cosmetics company that makes beauty products out of seeds and fruit from the Amazon. They are on the short-list of agencies helping bring the Ucuuba tree out of endangered status by creating a market for the seeds of the tree rather than the wood, making it more valuable alive than dead.
Similarly, Farmland LP buys farmland, converts it to organic, establishes crop rotation, and leases it to farmers. In this business model, the ecosystem becomes healthier the longer they operate.
If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know I believe the greenest product is the one that isn’t made and there are myriad problems with the existence of the cosmetics industry (to be elaborated on in a future post). If the market for Ucuuba fruit becomes great enough to sustain large reforestation of this Baboonwood tree, the ecosystem of the Brazilian Amazon will be disrupted. There are also sure to be flaws in Farmland’s work as they continue. For example, I could imagine farmers facing income challenges when their crop specialty is phased out of the rotation.
Neither model is perfect. The point is that they are advancing approaches to business from reducing harm (passive) to improving benefit (active).
Let’s take a lesson from the industry that is constantly redefining innovation — the internet — and institute environmentalism 3.0, yesterday.